Often when it comes to learning guitar, there comes a point where we get stuck between being able to play and know chord shapes and actually understanding what they’re made up of, enter guitar triads.
Triads are the 3 notes that make up a chord (hence the tri). When we actually play most guitar triads, we are adding additional notes in beyond just playing their 3 unique tones. This is due to the fact that the guitar has 6 strings and to get the most resonance out of it, we add on more notes.
Once you begin to understand triads, then it becomes a matter of choosing to add or subtract whatever notes you want to create the sound you hear in your head.
As I mentioned above, triads are 3 notes and beyond that, we have to jump down the rabbit hole of music theory a bit. If we want to understand guitar triads, we have to go to the basic level of the notes. So let’s go!
Guitar Triads Start By Understanding the Chromatic and Major Scales
In Western Music, we have 12 notes, known as the Chromatic Scale. If you take any open string on your guitar and play it open, then successively play each fretted note down to the 12th fret, you would have played thru 12 unique notes and repeated where you started at the 13th note on the 12th fret. This would be traveling one Octave (same note value, just a higher pitch frequency).
Triads have a root note (called the 1), a 3rd, and a 5th tone to them. The reason that these tones are called 1, 3, and 5 is because that represents the number order out of their parent scale.
The Chromatic Scale covers every note we have, but to be more sonically functional and create some cohesive melody choices, we need to form some new scales. The most common of theses scales are the Major Scale and Natural Minor Scale. You’ve probably heard the Major Scale a zillion times…Do-Rae-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do, with Do being the root note repeating, one octave higher.
So what that means is that we took 7 notes out of the 12 to form the Major Scale. We did that by choosing a root note, or starting point, then following a series of steps. Let’s take a look.
In this example, we chose to start from an ‘A’ note, but we could start anywhere. Half Steps are 1 fret, while Whole Steps are 2 frets. If we spelled the C Major Scale the formula would yield, C-D-E-F-G-A-B and repeating at C, one octave higher. Not too hard right?
So now we have a scale (known as a Diatonic, rather than Chromatic, Scale) and this scale is used to make musical keys. We start by building chords off each scale tone. Remember above I said that a triad has a 1 (or root), 3rd and 5th. So if ‘C’ is our 1, counting down, ‘E’ would be the 3rd, and ‘G’ would be the 5th.
These 3 notes have formed a ‘C’ Triad or ‘C’ Chord. Now because the scale above is the C Major Scale, this triad is a C Major Chord. By continuing this same pattern for each of our scale degrees of C Major, we would build 7 chords or triads. Let’s take a look.
By harmonizing the rest of the C Major scale, we get 3 Major Chords (used in the 1 4 5 chord progression), 3 minor Chords, and 1 ugly duckling that is minor, but has a flattened 5th in relation to its Major Scale (that would be the B Major Scale). These give us our 7 guitar triads for the Key of C Major.
If you were to go ahead and spell out each of C’s scale degrees as their own Major Scale, you’d get 7 new keys and you’d see how those harmonized triads differ from C Major’s triads. This alone is a powerful way to see and learn to spell triads, build scales and understand their relation to each other.
So if we spelled the D Major Scale (D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D), we would see that the D Major triad (D-F#-A) is different from our D triad in the C Major Scale by one note. The 3rd is a half step higher in D Major. This tells us that the difference between a Major Triad and a minor Triad is a flattened 3rd. Both the 1 (root), and 5th remain the same.
The only other type of chord, as we said above, is the 7th scale degree. Everytime it is harmonized, it will differ from its Major chord version by a flattened 3rd and a flattened 5th (B Major is B-D#-F#, B minor is B-D-F#, and B minor b5 is B-D-F).
Now let’s look at the popular open chord of C Major and see what else is added to the triad…
By looking at the chord diagram above, you can see that we start with the 1 (C), then have E (our 3rd), and G is played as an open string, which is our 5th. So right there we have a triad, but you can see we’re playing additional notes. These notes are part of the triad, but notice that the next ‘C’ is a different octave, which adds fullness to the chord and re-enforces, C as the root. We also repeat the 3rd, which again is a different octave, higher up. So instead of just playing a triad, we’re playing 1-3-5 and another 1-3 higher up. Adding these additional notes is what fills out our guitar triads and gives them richer sounds.
Hopefully this lesson on guitar triads has been helpful and given greater clarity into what guitar triads are.
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